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No bullets or militias, but Somali refugees still face hardship

[Syria] Faisal Jemali and his family fled violence in Somali, but now struggle to make ends meet in Syria. [Date picture taken: 10/25/2006] Hugh Macleod/IRIN
Faisal Jemali et sa famille ont fui les violences en Somalie, mais ils ont maintenant du mal à joindre les deux bouts en Syrie (photo d’archives)
Since her mother was shot dead in front of her 14 years ago, Maka Mahamoud Kashi says she has been unable to cure the pain inside her head.

"The Syrian doctor said I have two nerves fused together and that I need surgery," said the Somali mother-of-eight. Kashi suffered a nervous breakdown in the Somali capital Mogadishu after armed thieves opened fire on her family.

Thirteen years later, she decided to save up for an air ticket to Damascus, hoping for a better life. Though she left five of her children in Mogadishu with her sister, Kashi is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet in Syria.

"I receive around $80 a month from a cousin who works as a waiter in South Africa," she said. "But after I have paid rent and provided for my children, I don't have enough to save up for the $300 surgery."

Somali refugees, like Iraqis, have access to public schools and healthcare in Syria and say they have been welcomed by the government and the Syrian people. Two of her children –Mohammed, 10, and Hannah, 9 - attend primary school in Damascus while she takes care of her two-month-old infant.

However, Kashi’s surgery would need to be done privately, and with no job of her own, she simply can’t afford it. Kashi says she would be unable to pay rent on her single room in Berze, a suburb of the capital that is home to an estimated 6,000 Somalis, were it not for the contribution she receives from abroad.

Like an increasing number of Somalis in Syria, Kashi hopes for assistance from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Damascus.

"I went to the UNHCR two weeks after arriving last November," said Kashi. "They told me to come back after five months. Then I waited another four months. I showed them the doctor's report and they saw that I was pregnant, but they were unable to do anything to help me."

Money only for the most needy

The UNHCR offers limited financial support to the neediest Somali refugees. This amounts to around $80 per month for a family and $50 per month for a single person – but as Kashi receives money from abroad, she does not qualify for the assistance.

“We can only give financial assistance to the most needy cases,” said Dietrun Gunther, senior protection officer at UNHCR Damascus. “Those who receive money from abroad tend not to qualify, unless there is an urgent need in which case they can receive $100.”

Under current UNHCR rules, all Somalis originating from Mogadishu and the south of the country who arrive in Syria are granted automatic refugee status. This means they are protected under international law from being repatriated because of the dangers they would face back home, but it also limits them from being resettled in a third country as they must claim asylum on the basis of being individually persecuted.

Syria has not ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that protects refugees from deportation.

Gunther said UNHCR Damascus has witnessed an increase in the number of Somalis registering as refugees over the past six months.

This coincides with the rise to power in Mogadishu of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a new religious movement which drove out earlier this year the warring militias who had ravaged Somalia since the collapse of former President Siad Barre's government in 1991.

The UN’s refugee agency, which is drastically under-funded and struggling to meet the growing needs of refugee communities in the Middle East region, is unable to provide financial support to the rapidly increasing number of Somalis registering for refugee status.

In 2003, UNHCR Damascus registered 272 Somali refugees, with 22 cases - usually a family averaging four to five members - recognised for resettlement to a third country. In 2006, that figure has increased to 1,278 registered up to 26 October, with 236 cases so far recognised for resettlement to a third country.

"We are stretched every way in terms of finances. We are relying on a minimum now, which is totally insufficient," said Gunther. "We need at least twice the budget of last year." Instead, according to senior UNHCR officials, the Damascus office budget for 2007 is set to halve.

Somali receive some help thanks to the Somali Community Centre in Damascus, headed by Fuad Mohsen and run on donations from wealthier Somalis. Since 1992, the centre has been a focal point for the Somali refugee community, helping newcomers find homes, jobs and schools for their children and providing entertainment and cheap meals for those already settled.

With the numbers of Somalis living in Damascus doubling from 4,000 to 8,000 between 2000 and early 2006, according to estimates by Mohsen, the centre now sees hundreds of people coming through its doors each day.

Somalis being turned away

Since June this year, however, there has been a noticeable decline in the rate of new arrivals. "There are more Somalis being turned away now than are being let into Syria," said Mohsen.

"The government has put more restrictions on Somalis entering the country. They know if they opened the door too wide, all Somalis would come here," he added.

Those that are fortunate enough to have escaped war-torn Somalia find themselves fighting a different battle in Syria.

Faisal Jemali is a 27-year-old father-of-four who saw his father killed by an armed gang that arrived to ransack his family farm 30km south of Mogadishu. He was shot in the arm during the tragic incident.

Jemali then sold his house, paid an agency $3,000 for travel arrangements and arrived in Damascus in October last year with nothing.

"I was earning up to $40 a day as a taxi driver in Mogadishu, but you can't live there. You could be hit by a stray bullet just walking down the street," said Jemali.

His son Mohammed needs surgery to correct a urinary tract disorder, he said, but on his earnings of $50 a month helping out in the community centre kitchen, Jemali simply can not afford it.

"I don't have relatives sending me money," said Jemali, "but I am young and I want to work and support my family. But I have no official papers and even if I did there are no jobs going."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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